Eugenics: A Cultural Inheritance

Note: this essay and accompanying list of articles may be used as a subject guide for researching historical newspapers on the topic of Eugenics in Connecticut. 
The Inheritance of Eugenics
Over the course of a little more than a century, Connecticut changed from a place where
ardent social reformers worked to create cutting-edge, therapeutic spaces for the deaf and mentally ill to a state on the forefront of eugenic science and legal action. Though eugenic science was influential nationwide, a closer look at one state, and particularly a state once thought to be especially progressive in this area, can perhaps illuminate how this corrosive way of thinking came to be mainstream.

In the early 19th century, specialized retreats and asylums in CT provided, in some cases, hitherto unknown levels of clinical attention and care to those with select cognitive and physical disabilities. Yet, over time, these places became overcrowded and in turn, critics encouraged ways of managing disability and difference. The “colony plan,” which favored larger facilities and increased use of institutionalization, became an ideal. At the same time, the industrial revolution brought decades of intensifying immigration and new levels of poverty, housing shortages, and crime. Now, even colonies were thought too small to manage the growing social problems of the day. In response, some elites in Connecticut—along with their peers in other states—gravitated toward explanations of social disruption rooted in science. Drawing upon the new language of heredity, reformers now argued that intellectual and developmental disability, epilepsy, poverty, and propensity to crime were inheritable and yet just as importantly, preventable. This thinking came from the science of eugenics.

Reacting to the sweeping changes around them, some figures, including Connecticut’s
once esteemed Lakeville School superintendent George H. Knight, argued that Connecticut should apply tools of “better breeding” that had been developed from within the natural sciences for plants and animals to humans. Knight was not alone in this thinking. As these digitized historical newspapers show, many physicians and other respected professionals in the state were keen to embrace eugenics and the idea that races of people could be “bettered” through legal restrictions on human procreation. To that end, legislators worked to codify select marriage prohibitions and sterilizations into law, with the support of administrators such as Dr. Charles T. La Moure. During his tenure at Lakeview, in 1917 La Moure argued for a bill that urged large-scale “custodial” care of the “feeble-minded” so as to prevent the birth of more criminals as well as the poor and sex workers.

Connecticut historical newspapers offer a window into this moment when eugenics took
off. For years, the work undertaken by professionals in local “hygiene” groups related to
eugenics, along with the projects of national reformers, were featured in daily newspapers. Not all are explicitly linked to eugenics scientists per se, but all trace their genesis to eugenic thinking. For instance, some newspapers reported on the features of ideal babies, while others printed articles on how criminality could be tracked through genetics and found in an individual’s features. Unfortunately, the voices of those who were most affected by eugenic thinking—those who were actually sterilized or institutionalized—are difficult to find in local papers. Yet stories about such persons can also be found when reading against the grain. Overall, there is no shortage of evidence that this kind of social engineering was in the lives of most in CT, in some way.

It is important to note that Connecticut’s eugenic marriage law, which carried prison
terms for marrying someone from any of the proscribed groups, may not have actually ever been used to imprison. Likewise, it is unclear how often sterilization was actually ordered by the 
boards assigned to this task in state institutions. What’s more, not everyone was in favor of eugenics. Some Connecticut residents who vehemently opposed eugenic measures such as marriage bans and sterilizations, made their views known in letters to the editor and lectures. Finding all of these types of stories presents a more balanced view of how eugenic thinking influenced people in this area.
Connecticut’s history provides an important case study when considering the state’s early adoption of both 19 th century social reform and 20 th century eugenic thinking. Ultimately, to better understand how society grappled with these phenomena, national histories on changes in legislation and broad movements ought to be paired with these newspapers, where we can see local actors dealing with these highly complex issues. Eugenics principles were deeply engrained in the thinking of lawmakers, social reformers, and physicians through the 1930s, and in some cases, well beyond World War II; these local papers provide at least part of that story.
How to Search
Entering “eugenic” and “marriage” in the search box called “All the Words” will yield many relevant results. Using the term “social hygiene” in the search box called “Phrase” will be a productive route to learn about social and reformist groups related to eugenics.
For a more focused project on local people and eugenics, the “Women’s Social Page” in the Bridgeport Evening Farmer is a useful place to start. Here, researchers can glean information on the Connecticut Society of Social Hygiene. Richer details on speeches and meetings can also be found by searching for “Valerie Parker,” “Valeria Parker,” “Dr. Parker,” or a variation of those with an H. between the first and last name, I.E., “Valerie H. Parker.”

Examining articles with “heredity” or “hereditary” will also reveal the ways that discourses of genetics and theories about criminality became connected. This term will also return articles on farming, work at the grange, and the Connecticut Agricultural College (UConn). This search reveals the connections between the historic study of “better breeding” of plants and the social projects of eugenics. Finally, a considerable number of articles are available on those who were dubbed “Feeble-minded,” a category no longer used to describe persons with cognitive disabilities today. To better understand this history, searching with this term will provide material for gaining insight on how ideas about disability have changed over time.

A targeted search with the phrasing “better babies” will reveal how this language spilled over into advertisements for commercial products, for local gatherings and fairs, and articles on motherhood. There are also considerable results for “baby contest(s).” Researching this topic will also be useful for projects on rural amusements, such as fairs and other social gatherings.
Sample Results 

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